The Limited Family Archive

open photo album containing one black and white photograph and the others torn out

The weight of discourse presenting the homogenous familial experience is compelling, which provide plenty of reasons to buy into the discussion that family photographs follow the same conventions and codes, and to a certain extent they do. For example, photographs of new children, of marriage, and holidays fill the pages of the family album, or exist in collections online and in Smart Phones. These are the edited highlights showing the idealistic and very best moments. These are the photographs that we hope best to represent us and our very version of the family to others – a happy family, a happy home. Yet, these ‘happy’ photographs lack nuance, they are missing the downtimes that inevitably follow the ideal ones. Times that all families go through and what makes them better for it. Why shouldn’t all of these lived experiences that shape well rounded individuals be part of the family album?

In complete contrast this common practice, Erik Kessels makes a point of photographing his children when they fall – a rite of passage for any child. They learn from these experiences and Kessels is creating an archive that rails against the limitations of homogenous family albums to create something that is closer to the reality of family life – that sometimes you must console the child that scrapes their knee. The reaction to the series was in response to the way that we are primed to view photographs of children and as Kessels points out: “I believe these shocked responses have to do with the fact that we’ve been taught to interpret pictures in one very particular way. A setting sun is always romantic and a kid with a bloody nose has of course been the victim of some adult predator.” (2016).

It is not new to show the grim reality and spectrum of life. In Victorian England for example, it was commonplace to photograph loved ones who had passed away as way of commemorating them and retaining them in life. However, death was a bigger part of life for people during this period, as noted by Bethan Bell:Victorian life was suffused with death. Epidemics such as diphtheria, typhus and cholera scarred the country, and from 1861 the bereaved Queen made mourning fashionable.’ (2016)

Photographers and artists use the family archive as a means of exploring the commonality of the familial experience. Photographers and artists also construct their own responses to the family archive by creating new works that focus on their own family members and then offer the outcomes as part of a shared experience for all of us. However, just as the family photograph is a cropped, edited, selected highlight of the ideal – a limited presentation of what the family experience is. Photography art and writing about the archive therefore could be considered limited is what they actually present back to an audience and should be acknowledged as such. Despite the shared nature of the family album – the homogenous characteristics of the photographs within them – they are not actually the same. There are different dynamics, politics, and unique cultural signifiers that are there, even when the photograph might portray a similar scene.

In the UK, all school children wear a uniform. The argument centres around the way that a uniform offers conformity and also an anonymity across the socio-economic spectrum. Those least likely to be able to afford the latest trend of fashion would be spared the embarrassment of being singled out to peers for being poorer than them, a symptom of the engrained class-structure of British society. However, even amongst such conformity it is still possible to notice the child with the ill-fitting and faded school jumper handed down from older siblings, which have the frayed cuffs at the end of a term as the uniform is nursed through the entire year before needing a replacement. Or even, the child wearing the same uniform for an entire week because they are only able to provide with one complete set. The signs are still there, even when the code defines the conventions all must adhere. And the same can be said about the family album when two photographs of a wedding will signify differently according to their cultural demographic. Of course, this is not an issue in of itself as it is important to have the widest interpretation of a shared experience. It becomes a challenge when the responses to the familial experience are primarily those from similar backgrounds. Familial experience is shared by all but it also a gamut in which some of those experiences are not the same for all.

In Larry Sultan’s seminal book ‘Pictures from Home’ (2021) is a hugely influential document of his retired parents that also includes archive material and the narrative of Sultan and his parents building a visual library of images that aim to give an insight to the familial experience. What is striking about the photographs, especially to someone who is not from the US is that they are like watching a hyperreal movie, yet we are used to these images because of the way that US visual culture has been served. Sultan’s images might be gazed upon as part of an American dream Idealised incarnate. Some of the photographs are known feel that I know already, intimately consumed through cultural references I have seen on film and TV. One might know for example, what the feel of Sultan’s deep pile green carpet is like in all its synthetic glory, I just about remember the eighties. The reality of it is however, at the same time, I have no idea of the familial experiences being presented by Sultan because they are also deeply rooted in the middle-class experience of Affluent Americans.

How do those from poorer background limited access to the same materials create their own record and maintain an archive on the same level. My own and indeed my family demographic would be deemed ‘working class’ in the UK. I have a family archive too. It has the common photographs from birthdays, weddings, holidays, parties. The photographs would be recognisable as vernacular and of the family album. The archive, however, is visibly old, not a meticulous set of objects and the albums are poor quality and broken. The objects that contain the archive are significant as materials for properly archiving photography are expensive. Processing film and printing photographs are expensive also, even at the height of ubiquity of film photographic practice. Even now a smart phone with a high capacity for storage is expensive, as is the additional cost of cloud-based memory. This creates a disparity of record between demographics where the value of one might be deemed higher because of the volume and condition of it.

For artists, even the most emotive pain can become part of their practice, which is missed by the majority engaged in the conventions of familial archiving. The full spectrum of experience that we have as humans, takes place whether it is photographed or not. It is important to view family photographs and family albums with this in mind for a better understanding of what those images represent. The signs are evident in these photographs through the material presentation of the image, which might be in physical or digital form. Even if there is not the need to record these other experiences, they are still evident in the archive.


Bell, Bethan. 2016. Taken from life: The unsettling art of death photography. June 5. Accessed August 31, 2022.

Kessels, Erik. 2016. My Family. Accessed August 31, 2022.

Sultan, Larry. 2021. Pictures from Home. Second Printing. London: Mack.

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